Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Who Is Responsible for Marine Debris? the International Politics of Cleaning Our Oceans

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Who Is Responsible for Marine Debris? the International Politics of Cleaning Our Oceans

Article excerpt

The coastal and pelagic oceans are fundamentally important regions of biological productivity, geochemical cycling and human utility. As providers of food, recreation and transportation to the global human community, the seas account for a significant portion of the world's economic activity Certain human activities imperil the health of the oceans. The wide-scale dumping of waste leads to extensive accumulation of marine debris in the ocean and is therefore one of the most detrimental threats to marine life.

Marine debris is generally characterized as discarded anthropogenic solid waste present in marine waterways. Composed largely of plastics, marine debris can include cigarette filters, baby diapers, six-pack rings, beverage bottles and cans, disposable syringes, plastic bags, bottle caps, fishing line and gear, automobiles and numerous other objects. The major sources of this debris include storm water discharges, sewer overflows, litter, solid waste disposal and landfills, offshore mineral and oil exploration, industrial activities and illegal dumping. The sheer volume and geographic range of marine debris is daunting: 14 billion pounds of garbage accumulates annually in the oceans and travels across the globe. (1) The increasing amount of marine debris and its high residence time in the marine ecosystem together compound the negative impacts that this debris has on marine habitats, flora and fauna and navigational and human health.


Marine debris is a classic "tragedy of the commons" environmental problem. As the ocean is a vast public space, individuals may pollute without immediately bringing negative consequences to themselves. The lack of oceanic property rights and the transnational mobility of debris deter private firms from participating in marine debris prevention or clean-up, as there is no direct economic incentive for doing so. As such, the cost of marine debris is an externality not captured by market forces, indicating that government intervention and assistance are necessary.

Recognizing the externality problem, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) held a series of conventions during the 1970s. The results of these gatherings, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) and the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter 1972 (London Convention), solidified international support for mitigating the marine debris issue. To further address maritime rights and regulations, the United Nations drafted the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982. Such international agreements have been fairly successful in forging international consensus on the marine debris issue by defining the problem and assigning rights and responsibilities for addressing marine debris. However, a number of issues hinder successful implementation and enforcement of such policies, thereby exacerbating the tide of waste that flows into the sea. The way in which nations exercise their political interests and allocate resources will ultimately decide if marine debris will continue to threaten our oceans, economies and future.


Approximately 80 percent of marine debris originates on land. (2) Stormwater runoff, ineffective sewage treatment facilities and landfills are the primary sources of terrestrial debris. Since landfills are not meant to retain water, extensive drainage systems collect excess fluids and channel them into ditches located at the base of the landfill. Various types of debris, such as plastic fragments, can easily be transported through these conduits and into municipal sewers where they are discharged into coastal water bodies. Inadequate coverage of landfills can also result in marine debris, as loose trash may blow directly into the ocean. Littering and illegal dumping are additional terrestrial sources of marine debris. …

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